Sadly, I was a child of the wrong era. Our family didn't even own a video camera, so they couldn't upload me to Youtube. There were no reality TV shows for me to parade on. I seriously looked into going on Stars In Their Eyes: "Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be ----- CHER!" but that would have involved a complicated audition process and oh, yeah, flying to England. Plus, I believe they had an age limit, which limited us child prodigies.
I wonder what it was about Cher, and that particular song that so appealed to me, that I actively sought to impersonate her? Catchy song, for sure. It was probably being played on the radio a lot, and on RTR Countdown with co-stars Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci awkwardly shuffling around behind Cher. But what was very clear to me then, and is very clear to this day, is that adults think that children acting like adults is hugely entertaining, and lucrative.
The whole thing feels a little sickening. Today's 8-year-old has put aside the Cher (and it has to be said, Judy Garland) impersonations because nothing gets you noticed quite like impersonating an opera singer.
I should never have googled "Amira Willighagen" in the first place because the first article that popped up - from the ever-informative Daily Mail made me want to beat my own head in with the lid of my Le Creuset. The 9-year-old Dutch girl that Simon Cowell is "gushing" about, "taught herself the art of opera via YouTube" (what a sucker I am, all those years of formal training when you can learn it for free on youtube!) "instead of attending singing lessons" and performed a "flawless rendition of O mio babbino caro."
Fortunately amidst all the gushing came some intelligent comment - namely from classical music journalist Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, who says everything that the rest of us are thinking (on the one hand, the phrasing is horrendous; on the other, who are we to criticise a little girl who just wants to sing? etc), including: "we’ve trodden this ground so many times before that there’s almost no point in going into it again."
It's true - when it comes to child opera singers (three words that should never be used together in the same sentence), why do we even care?
In 1789, a seventeen-year-old Anna Gottlieb was handpicked for the role of Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute, having already sung Barbarina in Figaro two years earlier. Her voice eventually crapped out and she sunk into poverty, occasionally begging the Austrian Emperor for a pension.
When 12-year-old Charlotte Church and her fascinating, out-of-control chin burst onto the scene, everybody got terribly excited. And then what happened? She got older, and as it turned out it, didn't have the goods after all.
These should be serving as cautionary tales for the likes of Jackie Evancho, "soprano prodigy." Seriously, try typing "soprano prodigy" into google - you'll come up with pages and pages about this little girl. Terrifying. So much pressure, so young. Pretty little voice. Wonder if she can keep it up. Do you know what a real soprano prodigy is? Maria Callas singing at the Verona Arena at age 24.
There is a wonderful song by Noel Coward called "Mrs. Worthington." When searching for recordings of it, I stumbled across an amazing 9-minute clip of Julie Andrews talking about her own stage mother and her days as a - dare I say it - soprano prodigy. Julie's career obviously was a wonderfully long one, probably because in those early days, as inappropriate as the repertoire was, she was allowed to sing it in her own little girl's voice. There is no dark fabrication or pretending to sound like a grown-up. Her voice then went on developing nicely into musical theatre fare, always sounding fresh and glorious, and it was only in 1997 that she encountered vocal problems - FIFTY YEARS after her professional debut. Not a bad run, Julie. Though she might feel somewhat robbed of a childhood, the story of her voice (the fact it kept going as long as it did) is one of the happier ones - it's also an exception.
Oh how I wish this was an issue that didn't even need to be discussed, but here it is: children should not sing opera. That's what I think - some won't agree. "What do you MEAN, children should not sing opera?! How very dare you, you hater of children!" So I'm now the bad guy for wanting a 9-year-old to ease her way over the next two decades into an art form and a world that is so, so far beyond her at the moment.
A swift and swarthy 10-year-old with a phenomenal boot on him may be impressive, but he's not ready for professional rugby. An 11-year-old who can play "Flight of the Bumblebee" brilliantly but can't do his scales or arpeggios is not ready for a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. 8-year-old Georgia Jamieson Emms can do a fantastic impersonation of Cher but she's not ready for a year-long stint in Las Vegas.
Truth is, I'm unsettled by most children out there doing adult stuff. I find child beauty pageants utterly horrifying. Those teeny, tiny, child gymnasts with their enormous muscles, my heart breaks a little for them that they're not at home baking cookies and dancing to Katy Perry. Some child actors are so frighteningly mature you wonder if they were ever children at all. Suri Cruise and her private jet - lost innocence? Worst of all is the constant, constant trotting out (read: exploitation) of children on talk shows and reality shows, the 3-year-old who can dance like Beyonce, the 6-year-old who raps Nicki Minaj...it makes one shake one's head and long for the days when a starring role as a sheep in the Nativity play was all you needed to achieve adult adoration and your own sense of self-worth.
The tragedy is that the kids themselves may not be (and generally aren't!) the ones driving the vehicle. There is a lot of money to be made, and managers, agents, producers, recording executives - and in the worst case, the parents! - do not always have the young singer's best interests at heart. You can't watch an early Garland movie without thinking, ooh yeah, she's got crazy eyes. They've drugged her up real good to get through that song-and-dance number. Not that I'm suggesting managers are actually drugging their opera children...
I say, let the kids sing, but just for now, why not just stick with songs from Annie?
Posted by Georgia Jamieson Emms